I received a promotional copy of this book from Oxford University Press.
Head Strong, by Michael D Matthews and published by Oxford University Press, examines how militaries around the world apply psychology to improve the effectiveness and welfare of their soldiers. His personal experiences as an Air Force officer, police deputy, and a psychologist give him an excellent background from which to examine the effects that service in the military and other stressful applications have on individuals. As several commentators note in their cover quotes, the lessons he presents in his book apply to professions outside the military.
Changing Nature of War
Matthews argues that military advances have been linked to specific technologies. For example, World War I was largely a chemical war, featuring the use of chemical weapons as well as improvements in explosives. World War II, by contrast, was dominated by physics. The atomic bomb is the most prominent example, but advances in aviation, communication, and detection played vital roles as well.
A soldier in World War I needed to know a little more than how to maintain their weapon and fire it with reasonable accuracy. Weapon systems in World War II became much more complex, requiring specific knowledge and training to wield them effectively. As systems for command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) advance, so does the need for soldiers with the cognitive abilities to manage them under extreme stress.
The nature of warfare has also changed. Set piece battles between opposing forces are largely a thing of the past. Urban warfare, guerrilla tactics, and terrorism have changed both of the nature of the threat and a soldier’s ability to distinguish enemy combatants from civilians. These uncertainties, when piled upon the considerable stress of taking lives and losing friends in battle, pushed even well-disciplined and trained soldiers to the breaking point. There’s also the growing difference in skills between front-line combat troops and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, pilots. Intelligence officers are often made fun of for being stationed a safe distance from the action and performing their duties in a comfortable chair. Matthews addresses a related issue: What level of physical fitness should be expected of UAV pilots who grew up on their couches playing video games? How would differing standards affect morale and mutual respect within the military?
Efforts in Place, but Not Without Controversy
Matthews details many of the efforts currently used and that are being developed to give soldiers the resilience they need to undergo these stresses without developing pathologies such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Comprehensive Soldier Fitness addresses resilience and stress management in addition to physical strength, while advances in simulation technology, which have long been in use for military and civilian aircraft pilots, allow freshly minted lieutenants to develop experience and insights into combat in a bloodless environment. In the past, platoon leaders could only learn on the job, which brings significant risk to both the new officer and the 30 soldiers in their platoon. As one Vietnam veteran I worked with in DC noted, “The most effective weapon the Viet Cong had was a new 2nd Lieutenant with a compass and a map.”
At several points during the book, Matthews references the work of Army Col. James Ness in relation to stress management and avoiding PTSD. One of Ness’s recommendations is that units train continuously, both to build competence and increase unit cohesion. Research has shown that highly cohesive units such as Army Rangers have significantly lower rates of pathological response to combat stress. The author notes that from his own experience as a police officer, he did not worry even when he was conducting extremely dangerous felony traffic stops because he had been trained how to handle the situations. Matthews prefers the term hypercompetence to describe the desirable automatic nature of combat skills and how knowing what to do reduces stress.
Few individuals argue against the merits of helping soldiers recover from battlefield trauma or transition to civilian life, but Matthews doesn’t back away from the conflicts within the psychology community regarding the ethics of preparing soldiers for battle. In fact, because psychologists tend to a more liberal political ideology, there have been instances of protest within the community and at conferences where military members of the American Psychological Association gathered. He notes that there have been successful efforts to improve communication between APA members who work with the military and those who disagree with the use of force.
As someone who never served in the military, but does have several family members who served or are currently serving, I found Head Strong to be a fascinating look at how the U.S. military is working to give members the skills they need to serve effectively and deal with the severe stresses inherent to military service. Just as there have been spin-offs from military-funded advances in chemistry, electronics, and physics, there is hope that we might get similar benefits in the field of psychology.
Curtis Frye is the editor of
Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30
Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy
to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media;
he has also created over a dozen online training courses for
lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and
entertainer. You can find more information about him at